Death Cab for Cutie has always been tougher in concert than on record. Ben Gibbard’s songs about sad, lonely people occasionally play that way at home or on your iPod: sad and lonely. It can all get a bit insular and depressing. Onstage, the band tends to turn up the volume a notch or two and lets its sensitive indie-pop play out beneath a squall of guitars.
This dynamic is particularly noticeable on Death Cab’s latest CD, Narrow Stairs, by far its strongest, most straightforward, and ambitious album. At the Plain Dealer Pavilion last night, the new songs took on shapes, sizes, and scope, while familiar to anyone who’s heard a Death Cab song from the ’00s, which practically tore at the tunes’ core from the inside out ...
The 90-minute set mostly came from the band’s last three albums: 2003’s Transatlanticism, 2005’s Plans, and this year’s Narrow Stairs. Gibbard, guitarist Chris Walla, bass player Nick Harmer, and drummer Jason McGerr – who can be a bit distant on record, despite their reputation for introspective and personal songs – let go of some of their reservations last night. It wasn’t so much a kick-ass rock show as it was a gust of nerdy indie-rockers playing sexy rock stars. And to a point it worked, especially during fan faves like “Soul Meets Body” and “The Sound of Settling.”
Still, the night pretty much belonged to Narrow Stairs and how its songs fit within the Death Cab canon. Eight-minute centerpiece “I Will Possess Your Heart” plays out onstage exactly like you’d expect it to. The slow build of sounds – bass, guitar, drums, keys – was even more monumental in concert, as the band turned the epic into a set-piece on its spare stage. And Gibbard’s solo moment, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” got the three-quarters-filled Pavilion singing along.
Thankfully, the severe storms that blew through town last night ended shortly after Death Cab came onstage. The wet, sticky calm fit Narrow Stairs cuts like “Long Division” and “Cath . . . ,” both of which flexed extra muscle in concert. This is still a band that keeps its girth in check. But last night’s lean, solid set proved that sometimes even sensitive guys need to turn their amps to seven. --Michael Gallucci